What is audio saturation, how to use it, and what are the best saturation plugins? We have listed our top 13 picks that will add harmonics and warm up your sound. Let’s dive in!
What Is Audio Saturation?
Saturation is a form of distortion that audio engineers use to increase the harmonics and warmth of the track. It is caused by overdriving the input signal, which becomes non-linear to the output. It originates from analog hardware machines and is now commonly emulated in plugins.
One may also refer to this effect as soft-clipping. Audio engineers use it as it adds a colorful and pleasant tonality to the sound. Another way to look at Saturation is as a combination of distortion and compression. Distortion generates new harmonics, and compression balances the dynamic range.
Old analog machines such as tube amps, transistor-based preamps, and tape machines often caused this effect, and nowadays, many artists still prefer using them for their analog warmth. Digital plugins emulate this process successfully as well and are vital for mixing and mastering purposes.
What Is Audio Saturation Good For?
Audio engineers use audio saturation to glue different sound sources together, such as drums, increase the presence of basslines in the mix, tame transients, enrich vocals, and add cohesiveness to the mix as a whole.
You can use saturation to improve the mid-range of a track at the expense of the high end. If you want to decrease the high frequencies of a sound source, adding saturation is one way to achieve that. Another appropriate use of saturation is during the mastering stage. When used in moderation, it adds liveliness and flavor to the song.
Top 13 Saturation & Tape Emulation Plugins 2021
1. XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color
What if I told you, you could teleport back to the 80s? Well, not literally, but the XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color gets close enough.
The plugin has a mellow design pleasant to the eye and a good amount of presets. It also has all the bells and whistles you could expect from a saturation and tape plugin. It also has a good choice of distortion types, and not only does it emulate tape saturation and character but also the digital flavor that came right after analog.
- Exciting noise sounds to choose from in the noise effect section: if you use noise a lot and want a good variety, XLN’s plugin got your back. It also has a ‘follow’ feature that follows the signal and decays immediately with the sound source. You also have the opposite option – duck, which reduced the noise level when it detects a signal, excellent for percussive elements. If you want to randomize the volume of the noise, there’s a flux parameter for that too.
- Funky wobble module: This effect has a Wow to flutter slider. It creates a very funky sound that you can control along with the rate of both the stereo and, again, a flux parameter.
- A digital effect that crushes the audio with a slider between rate and bits: if you want some crystal crunch for the high ends – this is the right effect for you. You can also soften the curves with a smooth parameter. You may as well control the frequency range where the sound source is affected by the effect. Here the flux parameter will add some randomization too.
- A type of reverb-resonator effect called Space gives some loft and air to your sound. It sounds great on drums too.
The XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color plugin is available on macOS 10.9 and up and Windows 7 and up in 32 and 64-bit VST, AU, and AAX formats.
XLN Audio RC-20 Retro Color is an excellent choice if you are looking for a flexible but easy-to-use plugin that offers analog tape and saturation emulation and digital bit crushing, which you can easily combine with a different type of noise effects, wobbles, and fluttering effects.
2. Wavesfactory Cassette
Thanks to its old-fashioned cassette interface and excellent emulation, the Wavesfactory Cassette is one of the most incredible retro tape emulators.
The plugin has been modeled by a high-end analog tape machine resulting in a true-to-the-tape analog cassette sound and the experience of using one due to its cassette-inspired interface. The plugin tends to detail. From 4 different tape types and three deck ones, combined with its other controllable knobs, it provides an excellent emulation that is easy and simplistic to use but with a good range of possibilities that pay attention to the small details of the original tape machine.
- Resizable retro interface: The main interface of the plugin is straightforward to use with an analog aesthetic with another view which allows you to adjust the more minor details. It has the perfect level of complexity a tape emulation plugin should have.
- Saturation, compression, distortion, and even noise floor with the ability to control the stereo width: all these options give you the precise control you need to get the effect exactly where you want it to be without overcomplicating things.
- Three awesome modes: The Micromodule was moduled by a lofi machine intended for dictation. The Home module emulates a more classical mass-market device, and the Pro mode gives you yet another flavor allowing for more combinations.
- Different Cassette types change the appearance of your cassette and its tape formulation, which gives an entirely different flavor of the effect. From warm and fluffy style to a bright and thin chrome cassette, the Wavesfactory Cassette got you covered.
- Erasures: A feature that emulates a brand new tape transitioning to a tape used multiple times allows you to control the amount of character and grunge.
- A stability knob that controls the tape speed’s fluctuations: if it’s all down, the tape produces apparent fluctuations in pitch, while when it’s entirely up, it does not. You can further modify this effect and adjust the WOW rate, flutter, and randomness of fluctuations.
- Pleasant static noise and artifacts knob that produces a unique analog effect. In the master controls, you can control degradation depth and dropout rate to reach something precisely to your preference. There’s also a random snap control that emulates what happens to the tape when it sticks and freezes itself momentarily, causing a sudden drop in pitch.
The WavesFactory plugin is compatible with Windows 7 and up and Mac OS X 10.7 and up in 64-bit VST, VST3, AU, and AAX formats.
Wavesfactory Cassette offers one of the best tape analog emulations that you can find on a plugin. After a thorough analysis of the tape machine, it has been designed, preserving every fine detail from different types of devices and cassettes and all the artifacts that one can find on a traditional tape machine such as noise, pitch modulation, and erasure. It’s simple to use, and its retro-designed resizable interface makes it one of the best choices for a tape emulation plugin.
3. FabFilter Saturn 2
FabFilter Saturn 2 is one of the best marriages between power and intuitive design found on a Saturation plugin.
FabFilter Saturn 2 is a modular plugin that lets you modulate individual sections in whatever order you please. You can dial in just the right amount of analog warmth to your sound with FabFilter Saturn 2’s preamp section. The input stage features an analog-modeled preamp, which lets you dial in just the right amount of gain and warmth to your sound. The filter section consists of different low-pass and high-pass modes, each with its distinctive quality. It also allows you to invert envelopes and has different types of LFO, which can help you achieve a subtle, gentle tape distortion or bluesy overdrive.
- Twelve new distortion styles: The latest distortion adds a lot of variety and versatility. For example, the Transformer style includes DC blocking, which acts as a high-pass filter to clean up ultralow sub-bass content.
- Crossover filter for multi-band setting. This filter helps you control the distortion, and the intuitive design makes it a pleasure to use.
- Enhanced envelopes: Some of them can react to the sidechain of a sound source. The animations in the plugin then show the amount of ducking, which makes it easy to judge how much make-up gain to add. The envelope follower can react to a transient signal based on the input, be that a band input or even a plugin input. It also mimics the envelope of the trigger source and changes it accordingly to create a modulation signal.
- Extra modulation options and LFO’s that can create complex Wow effects and an XLFO option. You can create LFO’s to modulate the high and the low crossover frequencies with shallow and steep filter slopes or an Envelope Follower that responds to your playing dynamics to create a Wow effect. You could also use the Envelope Follower to modulate the phase on the envelope resulting in a much more unpredictable flavor. The XLFO option becomes a sequence of 16 steps that you can adjust to create unique sounds.
- The option to distort the sum and difference signal instead of left and right. It is worth trying out when distorting different stereo sources.
FabFilter Saturn 2 is available as VST2 and VST3 for both Mac and Windows.
Saturn 2 is even more flexible than its predecessor Saturn 1 and also backward compatible. It is excellent for subtle effects but also shines when used more aggressively. The interface is just right, and its only possible drawback is its complexity which creates a steeper learning curve than usual.
4. Caelum Audio Tape Pro
The Audio Tape Pro is the follow-up to a free version of Caelum’s Tape Emulators.
This plugin is one of the more meticulous tape emulators on this list, with extensive parameter control for just about every factor that makes up tape saturation. There are a generous amount of presets, saturation types, and tape modules. There are a dizzying amount of tape saturation combinations to try out.
- 6 Saturation types: The Saturation module heads up the signal chain and defines the primary kind of distortion applied to your signal. These can range from discreet to very harsh and dirty. The Saturation modules also come with five adjustable parameters.
- In-depth Response Module: The Response module allows you to shape your signal’s impulse responses. This gives you greater control over your saturation dynamics and can be used to either enhance or distort your signal.
- 12 Tape Presets: Caelum has expanded some of the already impressive lists of tape emulations provided with their previous free versions. You can apply these emulations to either the response or noise modules independently to create some lush overtones on your signal.
- Extended Delay Parameters: The Tape Delay module in this plugin gives you the extensive scope on their delay parameters. There are independent left and right time and feedback controls, which can help you balance or tilt their stereo image preferences. There are also separate gain knobs for both the dry and wet signals and a sync option to delay time with the click.
Caelum is only available as a VST3 for Windows users and in VST3 or AU for Mac. It also comes in either AU, IAA or has a standalone app for both iPadOS and iOS.
The Audio Tape Pro is an absolute dream. The user interface is beautiful, and there are so many knobs and parameters, it’s hard not to get carried away just fiddling around. What also sets this plugin apart is that it gives you the capacity to select your saturation type. This plugin also includes some digital forms of saturation, giving you a few enhancement options that analog gear can’t provide.
5. Initial Audio Analog Pro
Initial Audio’s Analog Pro could win first prize for the coolest-looking plugin on this particular list.
The company itself boasts a small but very powerful collection of plugins, including some wonderful mastering tools that will cover in another article.
This plugin also comes with a bit of an edge in that it allows you to utilize tube and/or vinyl emulators as well as tape. There aren’t a ton of features that come with the Analog Pro. However, the few controls that this device is very reactive, and the processing on this unit is exceptional.
- Tape, Tube, Vinyl Simulators: There is a little extra value that comes with the Analog Pro plugin. This device offers the addition of tube amp simulation, as well as vinyl recording emulators. Tape, Tube, and Vinyl each have their own distinctive aural aesthetic as each records electronic signals by a different process.
- Stereo Widening Control: A Stereo widening knob is a quick solution for clearing up any mud caused by clashing harmonics in your saturation. You can also use it to help smooth out specific phasing issues with vocals, brass, or string busses.
- Emphasis Parameter: This control helps you boost the affected mid to high frequencies in your signal chain. When used in combination with the stereo knob, it can add a lot of warm resonance to your mid to high-range information.
- High and Lowcut Slopes: Saturation can sometimes cause overbearing harshness in certain parts of a signal’s frequency range. Tuning out the higher or lower end of your signal with controls such as these can clean out any sharp or booming points in your signal chain that the plugin might introduce.
The Analog Pro is compatible with Windows 7 and above and macOS 10.6 and higher. It only comes in 64-bit versions as a VST for Windows and VST or AU options for Mac.
Initial Audio’s Analog Pro tops our list of coolest looking tape emulators with its sleek wooden handcraft aesthetic. We would have liked to have seen a few more options for parameter control with that in mind. The additional valve and vinyl emulations are a nice touch and provide you with a slightly broader scope on classic analog processing sounds.
6. Waves J37 Tape
Modeled after the iconic Studer Tape machines used by the Abbey Road studios, this plugin has a live interface and unique characteristics.
More notably, the track “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles had used the Studer Tape machine from which the plugin has been modeled. It has a pleasant tone and will make anything you throw at it more firm and present.
- Three distinct distortion formulas: the plugin has 3 distortion modes – 888,811, and 815 and each is less aggressive than the previous one. 815 is ideal if you want the effect to be more subtle. 888 is great for lo-fi tracks.
- Two Speed modes: this plugin allows you to switch from 7.5 inches per second to 15 inches per second. The first retains more low end and is ideal for a warmer sound, whereas the latter preserves more of the high end, and it’s better if your focus is on the full spectrum.
- Bias functionality: In hardware tape machines, bias improves the sound quality by changing the placement of the signal to more linear zones of the tape’s magnetic function. The way this effect has been modeled in the plugin results in a subtle increase in the high end and slight distortion too.
- Three distinct crossover modes: in the plugin, those are called modeled tracks, but what they essentially do is a crossover effect where the left and right channel slightly mix. This bleeding, achieved when selecting the second plus third option, creates mild phase cancellation, effectively increasing the width of the stereo image. The other two options are less aggressive.
- Wow, Flutter and Noise: These effects work as expected for a tape machine plugin. There are also Depth and Rate knobs that allow you to control the amount of modulation and frequency range.
- Delay: You can switch between ping-pong, feedback delay, and slapback delay. You can also focus this delay on a narrow band of frequencies using the low-pass filter. The plugin also comes with lots of presets that make perfect use of this feature.
The plugin supports 64-bit AU, VST2, and VST3 formats.
This plugin has a lovely interface, authentic tape hiss, great tape compression, and is rather flexible. It does use more CPU than perhaps desirable, but it’s the price one has to pay if they want to use a plugin modeled after such an iconic tape machine.
7. Toneboosters ReelBus 4
One of the most appealing things about the Reelbus is its modern but straightforward interface.
The overall layout is easy to understand, and the aesthetic is soft on the eyes, which is excellent for long hours of screen time. This plugin hosts a variety of tape-style effects, which we will cover below.
- Drive EQ – The Drive EQ lets you isolate your saturation onto specific frequencies. This tool is great for bringing up individual harmonics in a signal without interfering with its rest.
- Tape Echo and Flanger – The Tape Flange and Echo units serve as modulation and time-based effect units. Each comes with its own sets of parameters, and you can also choose which frequencies to focus your effects independently. These units can help you create some well-defined spatial textures over elements of your mix.
- Hysteresis and Tape Wear Controls – The Reelbus is a few emulators to incorporate a Tape Wear function. This function blends your signal with the kind of wear you would get from a tape that has been in constant use. These knobs can add a nice vintage touch to samples or midi recordings.
- Tape Stop and Start Functions – Most traditional tape machines have signature start-up and stop sounds. Naturally, as the wheel that holds the reel deviates in speed, it will also, in turn, affect the pitch of the audio signal. The Reelbus’ stop and start functions also have adjustable rates that you can set according to your personal preferences.
Reelbus 4 is available for Windows in VST, VST3, and AAX. Mac users can enjoy it in VST, VST3, AU, or AAX formats.
The Reelbus gives you more in-depth control of their saturation, with many parameters to fine-tune their processing. The echo and flange units are lovely additions to this plugin, and they encourage experimentation. While it may not have the richest frequency response or processing, the Reelbus is a user-friendly and fun plugin to utilize.
8. Softube Tape
A good tape emulation plugin to saturate and grit up and distort your audio.
Old-school VU meters incorporated design, buttons, metallic knobs, and a tape machine image – the interface makes you feel like you got the machine right then and there. It has all the most essential features a tape emulation machine should have, from speed stability to a high-frequency trim and a subtle noise. It’s most welcome for the accuracy in its emulation. Many audio engineers prefer it as it does not introduce any undesirable transients or too much noise.
- Three distinctive types of vintage decks: one of them gives you a popular flavor from the 60s, which is rather versatile when It comes to frequency response. The next deck offers an increase in the lows and high, and the last type is more focused on the very high-end frequencies.
- Powerful simplicity. It may not offer the most variety of effects, but it is so liked by many because of how accurate the tape emulation is. Sometimes you want something simple but good.
- High-Frequency trim to help you get just the right amount of high-frequency distortion and control the warmth of your sound, while the Crosstalk talk knob can help you glue the stereo image together.
Softube tape is available as VST/VST3, AU, and AAX Native.
While the plugin isn’t the most feature-rich among its brothers, it is a very compelling choice due to its ease of use and marvelous tape emulations. It is often preferred since it never adds any unnecessary artifacts or transients.
9. SoundToys Decapitator
SoundToys Decapitator plugin is a reactive, dynamic saturation and distortion plugin with a well-thought-out design.
This plugin can both deliver some gentle saturation and an intense overdrive. It allows you to easily control the often too harsh high end and also the amount of low end you would like to saturate, making it easy to use. Its punish button adds an immediate 20 dB gain to your signal and is excellent if you want to quickly “set your sound on fire.”
- A strategic Low Cut and Tone knobs reduce the corresponding frequencies before the plugin taking effect, whereas the high cut reduces the high frequency afterward. The low cut also has a thump to give a slight boost to the cut-off place.
- Five different styles with five different flavors, all from various hardware machines: you can also select and save your own presets of these multiple combinations. The first three are modeled from colorful preamps, while the last two replicate the Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture triode and pentode modes.
- The ability to lock single controls: If you choose to change to a different present but want to keep some of the controls the same, you can lock them and not change them when you interchange between presets in the library.
- Auto toggle switch: when distortion is applied, one may often notice a sudden change in the output level. The auto toggle switch makes up for that and automatically compensates for the difference in level, making the sound stay equally loud no matter how the distortion is adjusted.
- The option to mix the dry signal with the wet signal in a single knob: This feature allows you to preserve some of the transients if you are distorting pretty heavily.
The plugin supports Windows 7,8 and 10 and Mac OS X Yosemite (10.10) to macOS Big Sur* (11) in 64-bit VST, AU, and AAX formats. Keep in mind that support for the Apple Silicon M1 is currently in progress.
The SoundToys Decapitator plugin is easy to use with a friendly interface. What makes it unique is how the Low Cut, Tone, and High Cut knobs are designed, which can improve your workflow. It’s an excellent, well-rounded plugin. SoundToys are famous for their distortion algorithms, and rightly so.
10. AudioThing Valves
AudioThing Valves is a vintage valve emulation plugin with multimode resonant filter and cabinet EQ sections.
AudioThing Valves is an excellent vintage plugin that creates unique flavors with its Cabinet EQ and Valve emulations. The resonant filter gives you just the right amount of controls for your track. You can choose from 35 premade presets but retain the flexibility to tone things to your preference.
- Valve section modeled after classic vintage tubes with up to 16 times oversampling. These valves create a very authentic tube character for your sound, although as you increase the oversampling rate, your CPU usage will increase too, so keep that in mind. You can go from triode to pentode modes – the first provides less linear frequency response similar to the distorted tube sound. Pentode, on the other hand, is slightly more accurate.
- Post or Pre Valve filter modeled after a classic ladder filter with 2 of 4 pull options with various high pass, bandpass, and notch modes. This filter also allows you to alternate between pre and post, so place it exactly where you want in your chain of effects.
- Cabinet and EQ sections with modeled cabinets with classic bass and treble EQ controls: You can also emulate a few types of guitar amplifiers for some extra character. You can adjust the bass and treble. Keep in mind that these preamps are the most subtle ones.
AudioThing Valves is compatible with Windows 7 and up in 64-bit VST2, VST3, AAX formats, and on macOS 10.7 and up, it supports 64-bit AU, VST2, VST3, AAX formats.
AudioThing Valves is a unique plugin that gives you a specific vintage sound, but it is also powerful enough so that you can make some deep tweaks to your sound. One can describe it as a musically nourishing resonant drive.
11. PSP Vintage Warmer 2
A single or multi-band compressor and limiter simulation plugin, PSP Audioware Vintage Warmer 2, invites the warm analog character to your track.
The interface is easy to use, consisting of many knobs and highly accurate VU and PPM meters, an exhaustive library of presets, and outstanding overload characteristics. This plugin is a standard tool in the mastering engineer’s arsenal.
- Powerful presets for various types of instruments and settings. From analog warmth and saturation to subtle mastering tweaks, the library of presets makes up for the initially overwhelming interface.
- A single or multiband compressor: the two modes work differently – the single band first filters the sound source through high and low shelving filters, and then it compresses it. The multiband mode differentiates the signal in three parallels – high, medium, and low filters, each possessing unique compressors. Afterward, the signals are combined and processed through a hard-knee limiter.
- Double PSPs Frequency Authentication Technique (FAT) up to 64 bits: this dual sampling mode reduces any aliasing artifacts that can come up when you push the saturation while improving on the previous iteration of the plugin by bringing in more analog sounding processing.
- Excellent soft-knee compression and analog brick-wall limiting can make a track sound deeper, add analog saturation, and maximize the loudness. In this plugin, the knee knob doesn’t precisely operate the same way as it does in different plugins – as the sound source approaches the limit, it adjusts the dynamics curve, but it also increases the input gain. When using the Drive and Knee knob, your signal should already be approaching 0 dB to get the plugin to alter the sound. Otherwise, you will have to push those knobs to the end to get VW2 to affect the sound.
- Interchangeable VU and pseudo-peak-meters (PPM): The typical averaging process for a VU meter is 300 ms, but in Vintage Warmer 2, you can adjust it in the back panel between 3 000 to 30 ms. You can also change the reference level from 0 to -24 dBFS. The other metering option – PPM, differs from digital peak meters by having a short attack and release, which you can also adjust, and if you want to have digital metering, you can set the attack to 0 ms.
PSP Vintage Warmer 2 is compatible with Windows and Mac in AU, VST, VST3, AAX, MAS, and RTAS formats.
PSP Vintage Warmer 2 is an improved version of its predecessor, despite not being backward compatible. It is more sensitive and still remains one of the most indispensable tools for audio engineers for its analog sound and warm effects. It is primarily recommended for mastering but can be used for all purposes.
12. AudioThing Reels
The Reels Saturation plugin by Audiothing differs slightly from its competitors in this list in that it’s modeled off just one particular analog Tape Machine.
The machine in question is a Japanese reel-to-reel unit found at an old flea market and defines that Reels overall characteristics.
- Crosstalk and Ducking: A Crosstalk knob determines how much of the opposite ends of the stereo image interfere. This plugin is one of the only units that we have come across with this otherwise vital feature. Ducking creates a volume duck when the saturation is introduced to simulate the imperfections caused by tape recording.
- Motor Noise: AudioThing has tried to replicate the whirring sound to the reel’s motor and give you a control knob to help mix it into their signal. This parameter mostly affects the mid to lower range frequencies, and the motor noise simulation is accurate.
- Built-in limiters and Mono parameters -- The built-in limiter button that features on the reels plugin will help contain any harsh DB gains caused by the saturation effect. This tool is quite handy if you’re trying to see how much you can overload a signal’s drive without causing any clipping in your mix.
- Tape Echo ‘Wet Only’ Function: The echo module in this plugin comes with a ‘Wet Only’ button, which removes the original dry signal from your mix, leaving only the echoes’ behind. This technique can create some sparse and colorful stereo information without cluttering up your mix.
Reels by Audiothing is compatible with 64-bit windows and comes in VST2, VST3, or AAX formats. Mac Users will require macOS 10.15 or above and have the option of choosing between VST2, VST3, AU, or AAX versions of the plugin.
This plugin is convenient for those looking to find a more Lo-Fi-type sound for their mixes with little effort. A downside to this device is that it only offers you only one type of tape model.
13. UAD Oxide Tape Recorder
A simple yet effective magnetic tape emulation plugin with great engineering to back up its emulation capabilities.
The interface is easy to follow, with only a few knobs and switches to mingle with. The art of this plugin is balancing between the input and output knobs until you get the result you are looking for.
- Input vs. Repro: alternating between these will allow you to hear the echo that a real tape machine would reproduce. You have to select Repro for that to happen.
- Speed modes: there are two options. One allows you to go at 15 inches per second while the other at 7.5 inches per second. Use the latter for increased clarity.
- CCIR and NAB EQ: You can alternate between the two modes. CCIR offers more of a background hiss, although, in the end, it comes down to personal preference.
Compatibility with M1 Macbooks is not officially supported. Also, LUNA is NOT available on Windows or Linux, and the UAD Oxide Tape Recorder is an extension of LUNA. LUNA is available on macOS 10.14 Mojave, macOS 10.15 Catalina, and macOS 11 Big Sur.
While this plugin may not have groundbreaking features, it will definitely add the warm non-linearities you are looking for in your tracks. Its excellent interface makes it straightforward to use. Often its simplicity will help you achieve what you want rather than distracting you with too many effects.
The 3 Best Free Saturation Plugins 2021
1. Caelum Audio Tape Cassette 2
This plugin created the demand for the Audio Tape Pro.
It rivals the RC-2o by XLN Audio as one of the top choices for free Lo-Fi effect plugins. It has a very pleasing minimal interface with left and right VU meters for monitoring. This plugin’s processing power is incredible compared to its actual size, which helps you save CPU during sessions.
- Sampled Tape Noise: The Tape Cassette 2 allows you to layer sampled noise from the classic Type 1 cassette tape. There aren’t any extensive parameters other than a blend knob, which serves its purpose within the boundaries of this compact device.
- Impulse Response Switch: The Impulse switch is an ideal upgrade to this version of Tape Cassette. The IR creates a more organic frequency response than its predecessor and vastly increases the saturation dynamics, particularly around the mid to high end.
- Oversampling -- Oversampling control is a dream for sorting out any aliasing issues. You can set the rate at 2,4,8,16X to help finely attenuate any misinterpreted signal processing caused by the saturation.
- Over 15 Presets -- Caelum has given you a bevy of preset choices to use a starting block for processing or even mere reference. These are split between presets with the newly introduce IR switch and those without.
Caelum’s Audio Tape Cassette 2 is available as 32 or 64 bit VST3 to Windows users. Mac users require OSX 10.11 or higher and can get in VST3 or AU formats.
If you’re looking for a top-tier free tape emulation plugin, you cannot go wrong with Tape Cassette 2. The color and harmonic enhancements that it offers you make it an absolute steal. If you enjoy this plugin and have the means, we recommend upgrading to the Audio Tape Pro, also by Caelum.
2. ChowDSP CHOW Tape Model
This plugin is one of the best free tape emulation software available.
ChowDSP CHOW Tape Model is based on a tape machine, initially intended to model the Sony TC-260 but later the algorithm changed to allow a greater variety of reel-to-reel analog machines to be emulated. You can set the parameters for your tape machine. On top of that, its emulation has an authentic sound and all the features you would need in such a plugin.
- Customizable Tape Emulation: There is a section in the plugin that allows you to change the tape machine the plugin is emulating. You can change its thickness which would round off the high end as well as the spacing. The speed is adjustable between 1 inch per second up to 50 too.
- Tape Degradation: this feature allows you to change the degradation of your tape and also has a neat variance knob. When set to lower values the degradation is uniform whereas at high – it is spread throughout different sections of the tape.
- Filtering and EQ: the filter may be simple with just a low cut and high cut knobs but it also may be all you need. In the tone section, you can adjust the frequencies to your liking with treble, bass, and frequency knobs.
- Flutter and Wow: These effects are of course present and you can modify their depth and rate.
ChowDSP CHOW Tape Model is available as VST, VST3, AU, LV2, and as a standalone plugin on Windows, macOS, and Linux. However, it’s not yet compatible with M1 Macs with macOS 11 Big Sur.
The good amount of presets and the ability to customize your tape machine combined with the fact that this plugin is free makes it an outstanding choice for many. There is also everything you may look for in a tape machine – Flutter and Wow effects, Filtering, and general EQ. The interface is simple but there is a helpful section at the bottom providing functionality tips.
3. Ourafilmes Diabolique
The final mention on our list is the Diabolique by Ourafilmes.
The Diabolique is a compact but effective unit and is one of the only free ones on offer through their online portal. It might not be the most powerful device on this list, but the fact that it comes in for free definitely reserves the right to a place on this list.
- Two Tape Machine Emulations: You have the option of choosing between 2 classic reel to reel emulations. The first is a Revox F36, and the alternative is a Tandberg Model 3. These act as the two raw presets for you to build their saturation off of.
- Analog Mode: Analog mode smooths out the high to mid-frequency responses that digital processing can sometimes overexert through saturation. The result is an overall warmer, which is a bit more pleasant on the ears.
- Tube Saturation: Separate tube saturation control lets you blend the processing of a valve state amplifier into their signal chain. This parameter brings out the presence of what some of the other commands can do when incorporated correctly.
- Vintage Parameter: You can make use of this control to scoop out some of the frequencies. Boxing up the mid-range will result in the classic signal tones produced by old vinyl players.
Diabolique is available to Windows or Mac users as a standalone device.
There are only two emulations available with this plugin, but both are highly sufficient at their processing power. The Revox module is geared more towards warming up your low to mid-range, while Tandberg’s primary purpose is to introduce higher rates of distortion and harmonic content into your signal.
1. W.A. Production Make Me Scream
A rowdy interface and name but perfect execution – WA Make Me Scream will provide you with 40 dB of distortion.
This plugin offers four types of distortion options with four timbre styles to alternate between different combinations. It has a preamp tube which allows for more pronounced distortion effects making it essentially a 2-stage plugin.
- A 2-stage distortion process. By asserting analog tube saturation before the signal enters the distortion module, you can increase the level up to +40 dB and get a pronounced distortion effect.
- Four distortion modes – the plugin includes folded sinus distortion, soft clipping, tube saturation, and typical distortion. It also has four timbres modes that provide a balanced or soft character to a more mid-present and crisp tone.
- Envelope follower that considers the transients that can vary the amount of distortion note to note and improve the musicality of your track: you can either hear the distortion more in the transient affluent areas or adjust it, so it is the other way around.
- Oversampling feature to avoid aliasing artifacts: if you want a cleaner distortion.
- Three types of filters to control distortion: Low, band, and high pass filters integrated to assist you in managing the distortion. You can also control the cutoff and emphasis of the filter.
WA Production Make Me Scream works on Windows 7 or higher and Mac OSX 10.7 and higher in a 64-bit format and on AAX in ProTools 11 or higher.
WA Production Make Me Scream is a great plugin that maintains the musicality of your sound while offering you the possibility of adding extreme distortion to your tracks. It has excellent visual feedback and incentivizes you to be more creative. Thanks to its three meters, the plugin achieves good visual feedback, showing the distortion type, waveform, and output, making it a good choice overall.
2. denise Bad Tape
The denise Bad Tape plugin will make you fall in love with the imperfections of distortion.
The plugin has been designed as an effect unit to add character and texture. Modeled after the Akai 4000 DS MK2 tape recorder, the plugin allows you to create fantastic layers for drums full of artifacts to WOW and a unique Squeal effect for pads; the plugin can help you reach the complexity you desire. Its half waveform, half oscilloscope display makes for a unique interface. And it is straightforward to use despite not being resizeable. It has all the typical control knobs found on tape machines, such as color, saturation, speed, output level, and input, which help you fine-tune its unique features.
- Detune that can slow the sound dramatically and speed it up as you let it go. It’s a nice effect but keep in mind that there is only one speed for it.
- WOW and Shake effects can help in creating a melancholy feel for your pads or faster interesting wobbles if you use the Shake option – a tape flutter. These effects are also excellent if you want to get some artifacts for your drums. Keep in mind that they can get very intense after you push them beyond the 50% mark. There is also a speed dial which may come in handy in some situations.
- Hiss noise and Squeel – the sound produced when two tape rolls move mechanically against each other, which pitch you can modify. These particular noises are sometimes common for house music, but you can use them across the board – keep in mind that they are independent of any input signal play, i.e., you can hear them constantly.
- Harm is a bit crushing effect that works perfectly for drums.
The denise Bad Tape plugin supports Windows 7 and up 64-bit VST, VST3, and AAX formats. For Mac OSX 10.7 and up, the plugin supports 64-bit VST, VST3, AU, and AAX formats.
The focus of the denise Bad Tape plug is, well, to be bad. Rather than accurately emulating a tape, the focus of this plugin is to take what’s “cool” from the tape machine and amplify it for creative purposes. Its harmful effects are especially useful for crunching bass and drums.
Conclusion & Verdict
Selecting the right tape saturation plugin will come down to your purpose and taste. They can either be utilized to add some textural dirt or grit to tame parts of your mix, or they can be a convenient tool for creating warmth and stereo depth. We recommend trying out the Wavesfactory Cassette if you’re looking for something affordable, simple, and reliable. But don’t forget to try a trial before you buy. However, if you’re looking to get in-depth with all the different aspects of tape processing, try out the Caelum Audio Pro.
Daniel Yordanov is an artist and music producer from Bulgaria. Having spent a few years in Berlin studying electronic music production and performance, he met many unique artists and producers, which opened his eyes to how diverse and vast the music world is. He is currently pursuing a physics degree while working on his own experimental and ambient music productions.